MONTREAL — They broke ground on the beautiful shrine that is the Bell Centre in the summer of 1993, less than two weeks after the Montreal Canadiens captured their NHL-record 24th Stanley Cup by downing the Los Angeles Kings at the historic Forum in nearby Cabot Square.
Unfortunately for the Habs and their fans, the incredible success of the past didn't exactly follow them into the future. They haven't had a sniff since moving into their new home, at least not until this season. The shutout goes beyond this proud franchise and extends to every Canadian team, as well. Twenty-eight long years and counting for a hockey-crazed nation.
That drought looks likely to continue for at least another trip around the sun after a 6-3 loss to Tampa Bay Friday night in front of 3,500 disappointed fans — some of whom paid a king's ransom on the black market to be here — that has Montreal facing a 3-0 deficit in the best-of-seven final.
After three consecutive playoff upsets of higher-seeded teams in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas, the clock appears to have finally struck midnight for the Cinderella Canadiens, who now face the daunting task of having to win four straight elimination games against the defending champs.
Good luck with that.
I'm not sure who took the crowd out of this game more: Quebec public health officials, who denied a request from the organization earlier in the week to expand capacity to 10,500, or the Lightning, who struck twice before the game was barely three minutes old, then potted another quick pair early in the second period to kill any chance of a Montreal comeback.
Lord Stanley might very well get handed out this year on Canadian soil, but that could come as early as Game 4 on Monday, where a Tampa Bay victory would make it back-to-back triumphs. You know, kind of like Montreal used to do all the time.
And so they're left cherishing the "good old days" around here, which are on full display as you enter the downtown rink. The scores of Stanley Cup banners brought over from what was commonly known as "the most storied building in hockey history" hang from the rafters, as do the tributes to 18 players whose jerseys have been retired, Hall of Famers including Beliveau, Richard, Lafleur, Savard and Roy.
There's an unmistakable feeling you're walking on hallowed ground whenever you enter this place, which Lightning coach Jon Cooper was reflecting on during a Zoom chat the other day. The British Columbian-born Cooper called this his favourite rink, and his favourite city, to visit.
And there he was on Friday, a few minutes before they threw open the doors to fans for the first-ever Stanley Cup final in this building, standing behind the visiting bench, just soaking in the moment. Who can blame him? I found myself doing that on more than one occasion as well, and I don't have any skin in this particular game.
Outside the rink was pure pandemonium. Thousands of fans, perhaps tens of thousands as the night went on, singing and chanting and waving flags before the game started, then no doubt looking for somewhere to drown their sorrows as it continued. Hundreds of police officers were on standby to make sure emotions didn't get out of hand, as they have in the past.
Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme, back behind the bench after coming out of his two-week quarantine following a positive COVID-19 test earlier in the playoffs, questioned the optics of not letting more fans into Bell Centre during his pre-game availability.
"As much as it could have been a way to reward people for getting their two doses, it could have been an incentive to increase vaccinations," said Ducharme.
"It could have been a way to reward fans who have spent 14 or 15 months in isolation and have the chance to participate in a moment like this. It's special. Unfortunately, there's going to be 3,500 people inside and probably 25,000 outside, all crowded together. It's hard to find the logic."
Quebec, which was hit early and often by the pandemic, is now among the most aggressive when it comes to relaxing restrictions, but even that has a limit, as we've seen this week. Other Canadian markets, including Winnipeg, are in the early stages of weighing these same issues, trying to strike the right balance as vaccination numbers surge and infections and hospitalizations fall during the end of the third wave.
Interesting note: at the end of the game, fans were held back by security from simply going into the night. You had to wait until your specific zone was called, a likely sign of what's coming to your favourite sports facility in a post-pandemic world.
The limited capacity of just 16.6 per cent also drove up the price of available tickets on the resale market for the biggest home game in nearly three decades.
Elizabeth Priest, a former Winnipegger now living in Alberta, flew to Toronto earlier this week with her boyfriend, Jarrett, a lifelong Montreal fan who was just 10 when they beat the Kings in 1993. They picked up Jarrett's younger brother, Tim, along with his girlfriend, and made the six-hour drive to Montreal. On Friday, the group paid close to $5,000 combined for four seats. That's actually a pretty good deal, considering the cheapest available about an hour before puck drop was a single ducat going for $3,170.
"There was no way they were missing this," Priest told me. "Even if we get pumped, it's still worth it."
Another guy held up a sign for the cameras that read "Missing the birth of my first child. Hope it's worth the Price." I hope, for both his sake and that of his partner, he was joking.
There will no doubt be more names added to the rafters here at Bell Centre, starting with the aforementioned guy in net, Carey Price, who has come crashing down to Earth after looking unbeatable in the first three rounds. And perhaps they'll eventually add a 25th Stanley Cup banner here as well, one that was earned on the ice surface below and not in a long-ago vacated building that has since been converted to a movie theatre and entertainment complex.
Until then, there's always a rich history to remind everyone of a glorious past — and offer hope of brighter days yet to come.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.